FOOD STANDARDS AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND AGAINST THE WEEKEND HERALDFood Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) complains about non-publication of a letter to the editor offered in response to a column in the Weekend Herald on 13 April 2013 which FSANZ says misrepresents the safety of food additives in a fruit drink and is likely to scare consumers. The complaint is not upheld.
A column in the Weekend Herald each week discusses a packaged food item and decodes what the label tells consumers about its contents. On 13 April the column featured Thriftee, a low-calorie raspberry-flavoured drink concentrate. It discussed, among other things, the presence of two sweeteners, cyclamic acid and saccharin, and early studies that had linked both to cancer in rats.
The column attracted two complaints – this one from FSANZ and one from the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council, which is dealt with in a separate adjudication.
FSANZ complained to the Press Council when the Weekend Herald decided not to publish its letter to set the record straight and reassure readers. Its letter explained that the World Health Organisation had found both the sweeteners were safe. FSANZ considered the opinion of the world’s leading health organisation would be reassuring to consumers.
While the column mentioned later studies and the opinions of regulators that the additives were safe, FSANZ said the tone of the article was dismissive and would lead readers to form a different opinion.
It said it was not clear to readers that the column was an opinion piece. The newspaper and the column were selective with facts, deliberately choosing to ignore information that would provide balance and reassure consumers.
The Newspaper’s Response
The Weekend Herald editor said the letter was not accepted for publication because the information it contained had already been covered in the column. The columnist had taken information from the FSANZ website.
The column was clearly an opinion piece, following the same style and format and in the same section of the newspaper as its other regular columnists. The column was loaded under the ‘opinion’ section of the newspaper’s website and people were able to comment on it.
In such a column, readers would expect to find fact and opinion. In this case the columnist had accurately presented the facts about the contents of the fruit drink and then given her opinion.
The newspaper said the columnist had given enough facts for a reader to understand the issues before proceeding to her opinion.
The Press Council had in the past upheld the rights of editors to choose whether or not to publish a letter.
The Press Council rarely gets involved in decisions by newspapers about publishing letters to the editor. In this case, publishing the view of New Zealand’s food regulator in response to a strongly argued case about food additives in our food would have added to the discussion. The letter offered for publication, however, added little new to the argument that hadn’t been canvassed in the column.
Public perception plays a role in the argument about food safety – occasionally overwhelming scientific evidence. The answer is not to attempt to shut down discussion or opinion – freedom of expression must be preserved – but to offer another view and to persuade public opinion if that is what is necessary.
The Press Council is satisfied the column is clearly presented as opinion. It follows the format of the newspaper’s opinion pieces and it is evident from its content and recommendations that the writer is offering a view. Regular readers of the newspaper are unlikely to be confused.
The writer has formed an opinion about whether people should be consuming the fruit drink based on certain facts about the food additives it contains. There is no confusion between fact and opinion.
As an opinion piece, the writer has licence to express a view on the safety of food additives – and in strong, even emotive language – as long as the argument is not based on inaccurate facts. From these facts the columnist has drawn her own conclusions about their safety. She does, however, acknowledge that some scientific and regulatory bodies do not believe these pose a risk.
The newspaper was within its prerogatives to reject the letter for publication.
The writer is entitled to express a view about the safety of the food additives.
The opinion of the writer is based on accurate facts.
The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.
The holders of the minority view in the NZ Food & Grocery Council complaint (Case 2333) acknowledge that this was a complaint about non-publication of a letter to the editor and that the decision not to publish was made in the exercise of editorial prerogative. It is on this basis alone that they do not uphold this complaint.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Clive Lind and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.